Cover of How to be SecularThis is a response to Kenan Malik's review of Jacques Berlinerblau's book How to Be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom

Kenan Malik’s review of my book How to be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom is the sort of lashing that every writer dreads. That’s not because he suggests that I harbour anti-democratic sentiments. That’s not because he paints me as some sort of conservative reactionary. And that’s not even because he esteems my analysis to be “deeply flawed”, if not humdrum and banal stuff (“not radical enough”). Conservative Christian critics have said far worse things about me.

But those same critics – and here is where my dread sets in – usually take the time to understand what my arguments actually are. Let me begin by pointing to two highly misleading claims about my book made by Malik. The first, mentioned above, is that I have some sort of animus towards democracy. In a version of the review published on his own website, Malik writes: “Berlinerblau clearly believes that ‘I know best, so your democratically expressed views are irrelevant’.”

No. Berlinerblau believes precisely the opposite. Had he read to the end of that section where he spotted my tyrannical proclivities, he would have noticed the neon-light blinking plea, “secularism needs people”. The quote in full reads:

People vote for members of Congress. People run for Congress. People sit on PTA boards. People raise money for social causes. People stand up to Revivalists. Secularism needs people.

How my colleague could square a comment like this one with the idea that I am beholden to anti-democratic impulses is anybody’s guess. I suspect that his confusion stems from the inability to distinguish between the descriptive and prescriptive arguments in the book. The prescriptive arguments come at the end. So, when I say in my conclusion that secularism needs people, consider that to be heartfelt, partisan (though admittedly banal) advice.

It was the descriptive arguments, however, which comprised 90 per cent of How to Be Secular. In these sections I was trying to identify the intellectual origins, historical trajectory, and current status of American secularism – a task that, strangely, very few scholars have undertaken. In early chapters I was tracking the somewhat tensile relation between what secularism has wanted (i.e., to guarantee freedom of religion while ensuring social order) and what democracy has wanted. This is a very complex question. Suffice it to say that “secularism” and “democracy” (at least direct democracy) are not necessarily synonyms. Permit me to give you an example from the book.

In an obscure passage from John Locke’s 1689 A Letter Concerning Toleration, the great theorist observed that if the “consent of the people” invested the magistrate with the right to “compel any one to his Religion”, the magistrate would not be allowed to engage in such compulsion. Let’s think that one through. Locke avers that even if a majority of citizens authorise their leader to impose a religion on others, the majority must be ignored.

Ignoring the majority, I pointed out, is often how secular policies have been enacted in American history. From about 1947 (e.g., the time of the landmark Everson case which ushered in a era of judicial separationism) forward, secularists used the power of the United States Supreme Court to shunt majorities aside. Through legal cunning they constitutionalised highly unpopular – though to my mind, necessary – readings of the First Amendment. This “judicial strategy”, as I call it, led to major accomplishments parsed under the rubric of separationism. These decisions included prohibiting prayer in public schools, prohibiting forms of workplace discrimination against non-believers, purging educational curricula of pseudo-scientific anti-evolutionary theories, and so forth.

I salute those crafty, outnumbered secularists of yore! The problem for secularists in the United States today is that the country has changed radically. The Court is no longer secular-friendly (or separationist-friendly) and has not been so for decades. The House of Representatives is stocked with Christian-Right fellow travellers. President Obama has given separationism the old heave-ho (and moved his party on to something called accommodationism). This means that the velvety compensating levers of representational democracy are no longer in the hands of secularists. As for those restive majorities, they are rampaging on the state level. Their goal is to subject everything from gay rights, to reproductive freedoms, to school prayer to a vote. Need I elaborate upon where that democratic exercise will lead?

This is the daunting reality secularists in the United States confront. Descriptively, I observed that secularism has achieved much by figuring out ways to circumvent majorities. Prescriptively, I recommended that, since this strategy is collapsing, secularism needs an infusion of supporters (and new legal initiatives and theorists). Malik’s concerns about my commitment to democracy are tangential to a more complicated analysis.

Malik also mangles another crucial argument, having to do with the role that order plays in the secular state. Back in those descriptive sections, I pointed out that religious violence – whether among religious groups within a state or directed at the state by a religious group – is one of those recurring problems that secularism was meant to solve. One might say that the catastrophic faith-based bloodletting of 17th-century Europe stands among the major drivers of the secular vision itself. Secularism has always expressed grave concerns over the threat that religion poses to social stability. In my book, I identified the almost obsessive concern with order that characterises secular governments, ranging from the benign (i.e., France, across most of its history) to the beastly (i.e., the USSR).

Malik breaks down my argument as follows: “The balance for Berlinerblau seems very much tipped towards the maintenance of order. … This leads Berlinerblau to a deeply undemocratic vision of secularism.” There he goes again! Malik has overlooked a point made repeatedly in my book: secular governments fail precisely because they get too enamoured of order. My concerns about secularism’s order “fetish” were explored at length in a chapter on Soviet secularism (Kemalist Turkey, Baathist Syria, are two more examples that come to mind). What ails many secular regimes? Order run amok. I am at a loss to explain why my critic sees me as an order-first secularist.

Malik is on firmer ground when he calls attention to my concerns about New Atheists. Unfortunately, he exaggerates their salience in my analysis (and for these reasons he is simply off when he claims that I argue “The key problem in the current debate about secularism is . . .the association of secularism with atheism.”). I devote about a dozen paragraphs, out of roughly a thousand in How to be Secular, to New Atheists. That is because secularism, as I define it, is a political idea. The New Atheists don’t do politics (at least not effectively). They excel in anti-theist polemics. My only comments about New Atheists – other than their tendency to exaggerate their numbers – have to do with the political ramifications of their skewering of religious moderates. Insofar as I understand any viable secular coalition as being composed of that latter and non-believers, I feel the anti-theist polemics are chasing away allies.

My version of secularism, to repeat, doesn’t focus on metaphysics or anti-metaphysics. It concentrates on politics. This is why religion bashing leaves me scratching my head (yawning, too, since the criticisms haven’t changed much in half a century). This does not sit well with Malik, who writes:

Berlinerblau suggests that atheists whose aim is a world free of religion cannot be secularists because any separation of faith and state requires the existence of religion. One does not have to believe that religion is the root of all evil, nor that religion is invariably problematic, to hold that a world in which people did not look to the divine for guidance or consolation, but faced up to the world as it is, would be a better place. . . Such a view is close to mine. Am I not fit to be part of the secularist movement?

To answer Mr. Malik’s question: he is fit to be part of a secularist movement. We need people, after all. Skilled and knowledgeable critics like him are always an asset. But if he truly wants “a world in which people did not look to the divine for guidance or consolation”, then secularism will not help him get there. Secularism neither convinces people of God’s non-existence nor the contrary. Rather, it tries to build a firewall against those who wish to transpose their conception of God’s will into a state’s domestic or international policy. He is conflating the agenda of secularism with atheism; while they share many goals, that conflation may be good for the latter but disastrous for the former.

Malik closes by reflecting on what, I gather, he sees as a major part of the secular agenda: convincing people to abandon religion. He writes:

One can win people over to a position to which they are currently hostile. Or one can accept that opponents can never be convinced, and that to build a campaign one must water down one’s own principles. Most real social change, from abortion rights to racial equality, has come about by winning people over to a view to which they were initially hostile, not by accommodating to existing prejudices. But this is exactly the approach against which Berlinerblau argues.

He sure got that right! I don’t try to convince people to stop believing in God. Those who believe in God don’t usually try to convince me (the few who do irritate me to no end).

I don’t know much about what my secular brethren are up against in the UK. On the basis of Malik’s words I would surmise that things are going so swimmingly that there is ample time and resources to try and convert every believer in Her Majesty’s England away from religion. Out of sheer curiosity, I wonder how Malik intends on disabusing the faithful of their beliefs. PowerPoint presentations? Public readings of Bertrand Russell’s “Why I am not a Christian” on BBC? I advise he consult my chapter on the Soviets for a reminder of how tenaciously people cling to their gods.

Need I remind him that here in the States, we are under siege. Orienting our activism to the worldview espoused by John Lennon in “Imagine” does not seem like an effective course of action. My guess is that social change in the United States is not going to occur when (poof!) religion disappears as a result of the dexterous rhetoric of missionising atheists. I think it will more likely occur when non-believers and believers band together in an effort to check the rising power of conservative majorities.

Who, quite frankly, cares what lawful people in an advanced democracy do or do not believe about God? As long as they can forge common ground about disestablishment, gay and lesbian rights, women’s rights, the equal status of religious and non-religious minorities, and freedom of expression, then they’re secular enough for me.

How to Be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom by Jacques Berlinerblau is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt